Josef Albers Found Truth in Squares

Posted February 23, 2010 at 4:01pm

It’s hip to be a square, at least according to the Hirshhorn Museum.

The Smithsonian Institution’s modern art museum is showcasing a new exhibit of nearly 70 works called “Josef Albers: Innovation and Inspiration” in honor of the late colorist.

One section of the exhibit, “Homage to the Square,” focuses exclusively on Albers’ mesmerizing work with vibrant overlapping squares. Though the exhibit may prompt visitors to recall everything they’ve ever learned about squares — they are both a rectangle and a rhombus, after all — its real purpose is to showcase color.

Each square appears to penetrate deeper into the one behind it, and colors change in relation to those they’re closest to. Albers believed that color has no inherent emotion, and he limited the shapes and patterns in his square paintings in order to bring the colors to stark contrast.

In the textbook “Interaction of Color,” he makes this point: “If one says ‘Red’ (the name of a color) and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds,” he wrote. “And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.”

In another part of the exhibit featuring Albers’ work with glass and mixed media, the artist shows not only his mastery of color but also his dexterity with different media. In one of the exhibit’s most memorable works, “Window Picture,” Albers used colored glass and materials including wire and imitation pearls to twist together a beautiful, abstract scene.

Albers grew up in Germany and met his wife, artist Anni Albers, at the Bauhaus school in Weimar. They moved to the U.S. during the Great Depression to teach at Black Mountain College, a new school focusing on the arts in North Carolina. Albers was eventually named head of Yale University’s Department of Design in 1949. That was where he co-authored “Interaction of Color.” He died in New Haven in 1976.

Albers was known as much for his influence as a teacher as he was for his work. Accordingly, one section of the exhibit shows off his teaching methods, giving examples of how he used different media, including the leaves that were so plentiful in North Carolina. Another section displays the work of artists whom Albers influenced, including his wife, Burgoyne Diller, Jacob Lawrence, Richard Anuskiewicz, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse and Robert Rauschenberg.

The Hirshhorn has a large selection of Albers’ work from his 50-year career, and it supplemented its collection with pieces from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. Among the works being shown at the Hirshhorn for the first time is a black and red print called “In Honor of the Hirshhorn Museum.”

The Hirshhorn scheduled several evening events related to the Albers exhibit. Hirshhorn Director Richard Koshalek and graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff will discuss Albers’ influence on Chermayeff’s own career on March 11, and on April 8, curator Valerie Fletcher will deliver a lecture called “Maximum Effect from Minimum Means: Josef Albers.”